There are normal people, and there are outdoor types.
There are normal outdoor types, and there are hunters.
There are normal hunters, and there are trappers.
See where this is going?
Most trappers are “normal” – assuming, of course, that you can classify someone as normal who regularly rises in the black of night and spends several hours each morning working hard in the wet and cold for what, in a good year, might approach minimum wage.
These normal folks can enjoy trapping – and any other hobbies or avocations they might have – to the fullest, absolutely love those activities and still be satisfied doing them just a little each day, each week or each month.
I know some of these people. I even married one.
My oldest and best friend is, among other things, a hunter, fisherman, horseplayer and golfer. Joe absolutely adores all these activities, and since I have participated with him in all of them many times over the years, I know first-hand he is good at three of the four. But he can’t pick a winning horse worth a flip.
Joe is retired. Fifty feet from his back door is a fish-filled lake, and his subdivision borders a four-star public golf course. He’s a member of a 3,000-acre hunting lease less than 20 minutes from his driveway. There’s a thoroughbred racetrack an hour away.
Yet, I talked to him on the phone yesterday, and he told me he hasn’t fished, hunted or golfed in nearly a year. It’s been almost a decade since he’s played the ponies.
That’s a little extreme, I guess. Most folks who like to hunt and fish and golf and put a few bucks on a horse indulge themselves in their hobbies a little more often than that. Most trappers do, too, even trappers with busy lives and little free time.
Even if it’s only for a week or two every season, with only a dozen or so sets, most trappers arrange their schedules and juggle responsibilities enough so they can run a trapline every year.
The thing is, you can’t just trap for a single day. If you make a hunting or fishing trip tomorrow, there’s no requirement that you go again the day after tomorrow. Trapping is different. It requires at least two days — one to make your sets, another to check them.
And very few trappers check their sets just once and pull them, so in almost all cases the trapper signs on for a week, or two weeks, or more. Sometimes much, much more.
The amount of time a trapper budgets for the trapline might be only an hour or so each day. But regardless of how brief the time allotment, it’s serious, binding and non-negotiable. It’s a commitment. You can’t change your mind after stringing some steel and say, “Ah, to heck with it, I’m not going trapping tomorrow.”
Which, of course, is one reason why there aren’t many trappers these days. There are simply too many other things competing for our time — family, job, church, community, other leisure-time interests.
Most folks (most “normal” folks, if you want to keep that thread going) don’t feel they can afford the regular commitment of time a trapline requires. They might squeeze enough time out of a weekend to go hunting or fishing, but the extended commitment of time makes them balk.
So, from necessity and often from preference as well, most trappers are part-time, short-liners. Trapping is very important, but those many other things in our lives are important, too. So it’s a short trapline or no trapline at all — and that second option is unacceptable for most of us.
Somebody who doesn’t understand the mindset of a trapper might think of trapping as a hobby, but to think that way is to underestimate the importance of trapping to the trapper. It’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle. And, since we feel that way about it, we make time for it.
The backbone of the trapping industry is made up of these short-line, part-time trappers. It’s “normal.” And, truthfully, every one of us is a part-timer at first.
But then there are those who aren’t normal.
I’m one of them. I don’t know why.
When I was in junior high and high school, a part-time trapper was what I had to be. Ditto in college, but at least I was able to arrange my class schedule to have the entire morning or the entire afternoon free and thus have more time to run a longer line.
In addition, the money was important; I had to work to pay for my education, and I figured if I had to work anyway, it might as well be at something I enjoyed.
My climb (fall?) into becoming a long liner just sort of grew from there. But it didn’t happen fast. In the post-college real world, where making a living and supporting a family were top-shelf, that half-day trapline shrunk to a couple hours before work every morning.
They say the surest way to avoid getting burned out on something is to quit while you’re still wanting to do it some more, but during those several short-line years it seemed to me I was quitting, way, way before reaching that point.
So I started looking around for lifestyle changes that would give me more time to feed this monkey on my back.
First, I talked my employer into letting me work the 3-11 shift during fall and winter. That gave me most of the day for trapping, and I could be on the line until noon and still get finished skinning before having to punch in at three.
Finding More Time
I got better at catching stuff over the next few years, and the ratio of trapline hours versus fur shed hours started evening out. That wasn’t entirely a good thing.
I was catching more fur and making more money, but I’m not one of those people who particularly likes fur shed chores. I decided I needed to find more time, not only for skinning but for trapping.
I found it, but not in the way I’d have chosen. The company I worked for went broke, and suddenly I had all the time in the world.
Fortunately, this happened in mid-November, just before trapping season opened.
For a “normal” person, the start of the holiday season would be a terrible time to lose his job, but remember, I’m not normal. After I got over the initial shock of being unemployed, I found it hard to keep a smile off my face.
The company had paid us a month’s severance plus accrued vacation time, which added another eight days’ pay. The 1970s fur boom was in full cry, muskrats from my section were worth $6 and a good ’coon was worth $25. I’d already bought my trapping supplies for the coming year. The severance pay would delay the money crunch, I hoped, until fur money started coming in.
My wife didn’t interpret it this way, but I decided that losing my job on the cusp of trapping season was a Divine signal, and I’d be a fool to ignore it.
After spirited discussion, we made a deal: I’d trap until Christmas, and if I wasn’t making enough money to keep the bills paid, I’d pull my traps and find a “real” job.
Fur prices were high, weather conditions were favorable, and my trapline vehicle didn’t give me any grief. I’d also evidently improved quite a bit as a trapper, because I soon discovered there was no way I could run an all-day line and stay caught up on fur handling. No problem there, either, though; country fur buyers were thick in those days, and I started selling my overflow catch on the carcass.
At the end of the season, my bottom line wasn’t staggering, but I made considerably more on the trapline than I’d have made even if I’d found another job immediately. More, in fact, than I’d have made working my old job.
That trapping season changed the way I looked at trapping. Until then, my philosophy had always been to trap as much as I could outside the framework of my regular job.
Afterwards, it was the other way around. During trapping season, I viewed trapping as my regular job, and I did whatever it took to make sure I could be a long liner.
That included, in two cases, quitting my job when I couldn’t work the long lining out any other way. But that was early on in my long lining career, before I found the right job. Or, rather, jobs.
The first long-line-compatible job I found was sports editor for a small-town daily newspaper. That doesn’t sound like it would lend itself to long lining, but the hours were from daybreak until about noon (the paper came out in the afternoon) and covering two or three ball games a week, mostly at night or on weekends.
That left big stretches of daylight available for the long line, and I used every minute of it for the two trapping seasons I held that job.
My next long-line-compatible job, which I stayed with for 20 years, was as a biologist/public relations guy for a state wildlife agency. It wouldn’t have worked, though, except that at the same time I took the job, my state adopted a two-day check for lethal sets, followed a few years later by a three-day check.
By using a mixture of comp time, flex time and accumulated leave time, I was able to work every other day and run traps every other day. It was during that 20 years that I really got into big numbers and hard rolling, specializing in mink but also working hard on other water-based furbearers.
At its peak, my trapline covered more than 250 miles and consisted of nearly 400 sets.
I retired from that job about six years ago, but I didn’t retire from long lining. I’ve scaled things back a little, though; advancing age will do that to a fellow. Instead of those 12- to 14-hour days on the line, my partner and I now run from first light until about two o’clock in the afternoon.
We could go a little longer, I guess, but Bill isn’t any spring chicken, either, and we’ve decided we like to be through with our fur shed chores by suppertime. Unless we have an unusually big catch, we almost always are.
So here I am, not quite into the sunset period of my life but certainly well into the afternoon part of it, and I’m still one of those not-normal folks who can’t seem to trap any other way but long lining. Even after all these years, I still don’t understand how I got this way.
Jim Spencer is executive editor of Trapper & Predator Caller. To read more articles by Spencer or our other experts, Subscribe Now. Have you tried Long Lining? Share your thoughts on this article and tips from the field in the Trapping Forum. Check back soon for Part II of this story.
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